“She what?” Lois exclaimed, her nerves jangling.
“Lois, calm down,” Richard said worriedly. “Mrs. Thomas just left the doctor’s office. She’s got the flu, she can’t babysit the twins tonight. She’s really sorry to do this on short notice, you know she’s always reliable…”
The tensions of the day, spent avoiding Clark and trying not to smoke, suddenly rose up and smote Lois. Her expression went from disbelief to anger to determination. “Fine. My mother … damn, that’s right. Mom’s car is in the shop, she can’t get here.” Not quite panicking, she dialed her sister, and her face fell. She hung up only a minute later after a few brief words, thinking, This is payback for that cigarette last night – God hates a smoker. “Lucy and Ron are out, and I don’t trust their sitter with the twins. Richard, what about your parents?”
“Sorry, hon, they’re in Florida this week on that vacation-home-exchange thing. And we don’t have time to drive the twins out to your mom’s place.” He sighed heavily, glancing out into the bullpen where the twins were doing their homework unconcernedly. “I guess that means I have to stay home with them.”
“What? No! Richard, I don’t want to go without you.”
“Relax, kids,” Perry said, patting Lois’ shoulder awkwardly. “Loueen and I will watch the brats.”
“No, Uncle Perry,” Richard said firmly. “It’s your paper and Lois’ article; you two have to be there. I’m just the accessory. I’ll stay with them, it’s no problem.”
“Richard…” In the privacy of Perry’s office, Lois let a hint of pleading creep into her tone, catching his sleeve. “Please, I don’t want to go alone. We can bring the kids with us…”
“Honey, no,” Richard said, petting her arm. “They’re going to be so bored, Jason will do his Godzilla impression in the middle of the keynote address. It’s all right, I’ll stay. I’m not too keen on rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, anyway. Besides, you won’t be alone. Perry and Jimmy and Clark will be there – if Clark ever gets here.”
“He will,” Perry interjected. “About two minutes before we have to leave.”
You’re missing the point – I don’t want to be alone with Clark. “Guys … I don’t even want to do this,” Lois said, pacing the floor. Her satin gown flowed behind her, a deep rose gray like water at midnight, and Richard’s eyes followed it unconsciously. “Maybe I should just stay home and let Perry accept the damned thing on my behalf.”
“No the hell you don’t,” Perry began, and just then the office door opened. In came Jimmy, uncomfortable in the Armani tuxedo. Upon seeing Lois, her long gown with its embroidery and its deep décolletage, he froze with surprised wonder.
Lois caught sight of him, and had to smile. “Well, well, look at you, Mr. Olsen,” she said playfully. “You look very handsome.”
“Th-thanks,” he stammered. “You look really good, too, Miss Lane.”
“She looks like some 1930s oil tycoon’s wet dream,” Perry barked, ignoring Richard’s yelp of protest. “And she’s going to the damn Pulitzers if I have to tie her on top of the car like a trophy deer.”
“Try it and die, White,” she snapped. “You only get away with saying stuff like that because people think you’re getting senile.”
“Uncle Perry!” Richard said in affronted tones. “Can’t you see Lois is already nervous? Don’t rattle her cage!”
Nervous? I’m not nervous, I’m about to have a complete mental breakdown, that’s all, Lois thought, resuming her pacing. If not for the upswept hairstyle, she would have been running her hands through her raven locks ceaselessly.
Perry just gave his nephew a despairing look. “Boy, the angrier she is, the better she’ll handle her nerves. And the better she’ll look, too.”
“Stuff it, old man,” Lois snarled. It was all the worse because he was right. “You may as well quit looking, you couldn’t handle me even if you were ten years younger and had a bypass.”
“See what I mean?” Perry said genially. “Jimmy, isn’t she splendid when she’s mad?”
“It’s damn hard to see splendid with two black eyes, Perry,” Lois shot back. “Don’t make me commit elder abuse.”
“Ouch,” Perry chuckled. “You’ve wounded my fragile vanity, Lane. If you’re any nastier to me, I might have another heart attack. Which would leave you as acting editor, since you’re the only person in the room who knows CPR and you said you’d never resuscitate me again.”
“After the last time?” Lois whirled on him, poking him in the chest to punctuate her words. “Here I am, panicking, the closest thing I’ve got to a decent father turning blue on the floor, and after I summon up everything I learned about first aid in Girl Scouts, you finally come around. Only to look at me and groan, ‘It’s Lane, I must be in Hell.’ Thanks a frikkin’ lot, Perry!”
By that time, Jimmy had seated himself on the couch, keeping silent out of her line of fire. Richard tried to rub her shoulders to calm her down, saying, “Darling, it’s okay. You don’t have to do much of a speech or anything; all you have to do is say thank you and head for the bar.”
“It’s not the speech!” Lois snapped, jerking away from him. It’s CLARK, you idiots! Can’t you people see … nevermind!
“Then what is it, Lane?” Perry barked.
“You just made me get the interview of the century, he’s on every channel including Bravo and ESPN, every magazine and newspaper is cheering him on, and people have been getting drunk every night to celebrate the fact that our savior hath returned!” Lois yelled, her voice rising. “And now I have to get a Pulitzer for an editorial about how we don’t need him! It makes no sense!”
“You always wanted a Pulitzer,” Richard began.
“For investigative reporting,” she shot back. Not for essentially flipping off my ex in print!
“It’s an important editorial,” Perry said sternly. “Lois, people needed to hear that – you made a very good point. We were spending too much time wailing and gnashing our teeth over his disappearance instead of trying to help each other. I’m sure Superman himself would realize that if he read…”
“He did read it,” Lois retorted. “And probably took it as a kiss-off speech.” Especially when he found out I’m engaged with kids.
The sharp rap on the glass door nearly startled her out of her skin. Of course, with his usual impeccable timing, there was Clark. He came in shyly, avoiding Lois’ gaze. Unfortunately that meant he saw the dress first, saw how it clung perfectly to the curves of bust and hip and thigh.
Clark couldn’t entirely hide his reaction, but tried to play it off by simply saying, “Wow. Nice dress, Lois.”
For a moment she couldn’t reply. The suit … oh, the suit was perfect. Even with the glasses on, there was no denying his attractiveness. Dragging her mind back from memories she really couldn’t deal with, Lois rallied enough to reply, “Nice suit, Kent.”
The awkwardness wasn’t lost on the other three men in the room. Jimmy just tried to look anywhere but at them; Perry’s and Richard’s gazes met, confused and a little worried. They both knew how snappish Lois had been around Clark the last two weeks.
“Well, children, it’s time to leave,” Perry said. Lois had turned away from all of them, staring out the window, so no one saw her go pale. The editor-in-chief tuned to Richard and said, “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay with the kids?”
“No, it’s all right, Perry,” Richard replied. “It’s not every day the Daily Planet wins a Pulitzer. You should go.”
Clark turned to Jimmy, asking, “What’s going on?”
Like you didn’t hear the whole conversation from down the block, Lois thought, trying to control her nausea.
Jimmy filled Clark in. As soon as he got to the part about Richard staying behind, Clark turned to the Whites. “Really, Richard, I’d be happy to watch them for you. I mean, it’s not like I need to be at the award ceremony.”
“Like hell,” Lois said flatly. “Clark, you know absolutely nothing about children, much less mine.”
Those words silenced everyone in the room, and Lois turned around to look at them. Clark’s expression was more wounded than she’d ever seen it, even more pained than when he realized that the Kryptonian villains had taken over the world while he was with her in the Fortress. In that moment, and little though she knew it, Lois was as beautiful as she had ever been, and her cold remark was more devastating than kryptonite.
That hurt in his eyes was more than she could bear. “I’m sorry, Clark,” Lois said quietly. “They’re very fragile, and I’m pretty overprotective.”
“Just a smidgen,” Perry grumbled. He’d been shocked by her nastiness, and even more so by her apology. Lois Lane did not apologize to anyone. But he quickly recovered, and said, “No, Kent, I want my best team on this. You’re going even if I don’t.”
“Uncle Perry, you should go,” Richard said firmly. “Look, you guys go way back. I’m the newcomer here, and I really don’t mind staying with the twins. It’s not exactly my kind of party. It just makes sense for all of you to go and me to stay.”
It seemed as though Perry and Clark were both persuaded, and Lois finally confronted the inevitable. She was going to a black-tie awards ceremony, with the man about whom she’d written the editorial, and without her fiancé. Wearing this dress.
Suddenly, it was just too much. “Excuse me,” Lois muttered, and fled the room. Leaving Richard to get the kids, the other three men followed her worriedly. The banging of the ladies’ room door told them all they needed to know.
“Wow, she really is sick,” Jimmy said nervously.
Richard, Jason, and Kala were walking up behind them in time to hear that, and Jason said curiously, “Mommy’s sick again? Are you sure she’s not gonna have a baby?”
Richard was caught out by the question, in spite of what Elinore had said last night. Perry answered for him. “No, Jason, she’s not,” he said in his customary gruff tone, then softened as so few people had ever seen him do. “Your Mommy loves you and Kala so much, she doesn’t want any more babies to take away her time with you two. So she had an operation, and she won’t have any more children.”
Richard’s eyebrows went up. “She had a…”
“Tubal ligation,” Perry told him, as the twins, their curiosity satisfied, went to pester Jimmy for candy. “Not long before she came back here.”
“I knew she was on birth control, but…” Richard was torn between disbelief and indignation, at a loss for words.
Perry shrugged. “She never wanted kids, Richard, and those two were a surprise. Now she’s sure. The surgery can always be reversed if she changes her mind.”
Overhearing the conversation, Clark wondered how Richard could not know something like that. The next moment, the twins decided he must have something delicious and quasi-forbidden tucked away in a pocket somewhere, and their wheedling kept him from pondering what he’d heard further.
In the ladies’ room, Lois rinsed her mouth out and spat. Her stomach still roiled, but there was nothing left to bring up. Being sick always brought tears to her eyes, but she blotted them carefully with a tissue, sniffling a bit as she tried not to smear the makeup. Which was hard to do when she couldn’t even bear to look at herself in the mirror.
She had told herself all day that she had it all well in hand, having spent yet another long sleepless night planning exactly how to go about the evening. Difficult as it seemed, she had told herself that she could put her feelings aside for the evening, make herself forget what was between her and Clark, and enjoy the fruits of a job well done. She had won a Pulitzer Prize, for God’s sake. That was something to celebrate. For one night, everything past and present did not exist, only this moment of triumph.
Only it didn’t feel anything like a victory now. Richard wasn’t going, leaving her on her own. Without armor. And the award was beginning to feel like so much ash in her mouth. Rather than be proud of it, too much thought made her all too aware of the article’s undertone; all too aware of how quickly the people were already forgetting its overriding message. Even, to an extent, she was herself.
Get a hold of yourself and stop the pity party. You’ll get through this, she told herself sternly, forcing her eyes up to make a few quick repairs with lipstick and powder. So will he; might even remind him of a few things. No one will be the wiser. It’s just one night. You’ll survive. You’ve been through worse than this. Why am I acting like this is the end of the world? If something happens, it happens. Either way, there’s nothing to be done about it. It has to end eventually. Better now than later.
Unfortunately, her stomach didn’t seem to agree with that bit of wisdom. Pressing her lips together, Lois rode out the cramp with small breaths, closing her eyes. This was going to be impossible if it kept up. God, you truly have a sick sense of humor. Why the hell did Perry have to do this to me tonight of all nights? And why is it that I win the one thing I’ve dreamed of so long, only to feel guilty as hell for winning it? Not like Clark’s reaction out there wasn’t completely unfair. I want to hate him for it, but that scared the living hell out of me. God, what an offer. Did he have to look so damn wounded? And did it have to hurt to see it?
Why did it hurt to see it, is the better question, a quiet voice in her head murmured. And why are you so constantly striking out at him, even when he doesn’t even say a word? You’re angry with him, but that only accounts for some of it. I think you’re scared, and you do, too, whether you want to admit it or not.
Scared? the other half of her feelings snarled. Sister, the last thing I am is scared. If anyone around here is afraid, it should be him. If he knew the whole truth, he wouldn’t dare show his face…
But he doesn’t know, came the insistent reply. You won’t tell him, because if you did, you’d have to tell it all – that you remember, that the twins are his, that you still love him…
I do not still love him! I don’t think I ever did, it was just an infatuation!
Oh, put a sock in it, you liar!
Lois pressed her fingertips to her temples, her eyes tightly shut, and muttered, “Shut up, shut up, shut up,” under her breath. Dammit, he’s the one with multiple identities, not me! If this keeps up they’ll be fitting me for a straitjacket.
Mercifully, the General’s Daughter fell silent, leaving only a faint murmur from the romantic. Lois finally made herself look in the mirror; other than a bit of strain, she didn’t look too bad.
A quick rap of knuckles on the door. “Lois, for once you’re the one making us late,” Perry said gruffly, but she heard the worried undertone.
Summoning up a ghost of that old-time Lane feistiness, Lois replied, “Coming, Mother.” She stalked out of the door, keeping herself cool and collected by force of will alone.
Richard looked at her dubiously. Arguing with her could wait – but they would definitely talk about this later. For the moment, he simply asked, “You sure you’re going to be fine, honey?”
“Of course,” she replied blithely, smiling, and kissed his cheek quickly. The twins came in for a quick hug, and then the old team was headed downstairs together. Just like old times.
The three men were watching Lois with a hint of anxiety. Her mood seemed to have done a complete about-face, and of all of them, Clark was the most concerned. She’s almost chipper, he thought with dismay. Lois only gets like that when she’s very stressed and can’t go to a kickboxing class or something. Oh, dear.
I wonder what exactly has her so wound up? It’s not accepting a Pulitzer in front of a thousand people – Lois has never had stage fright. Could it just be winning the Prize for that article? Clark brooded all the way to the limo Perry had hired, but he was no closer to understanding how Lois’ mind worked than he had been the first day back at the office.
Perry wasn’t exactly sanguine, either. Lois had been in a fury before she got sick; since then her mood was light, almost flirtatious, as if she’d managed to vomit out some essential parts of her personality. She was even gently teasing poor Jimmy now, the boy unable to look at her in that dress. It was almost like the old days, before Kent left and Lois ran off to track down Superman.
Ah, the good old days. Perry was almost overcome by nostalgia as they rode to the Centennial Hotel, where the awards would be presented. He watched as Clark cautiously tested Lois’ mood, first speaking softly to her, then gradually becoming more relaxed. By the time the limo had threaded its way uptown, they were bantering again.
Clark and Jimmy both seemed to have accepted Lois’ apparent time warp and were behaving as they had six years ago. Peregrine White was rather more wary than either of those young bucks, however. He also understood Lois better than they did; not that anyone seemed to take his advice regarding her.
Lois was a lot like him, in a lot of ways. She’d had a rough childhood, though in her case it was caused by a too-demanding father, whereas he’d had a good family with a chronic lack of money. Lois had come out of it with an indomitable will and a tendency to use anger for self-defense, just like Perry himself. He had mellowed with age, and more than a few of his employees suspected that the Monday Morning Massacres and all the other harangues were just a front, obscuring the fact that he really did care about them all. Lois was still young, still a firebrand, and as yet most people believed that the sharp-tongued hothead was all there was to her.
Idiots. She’s just as much a sentimental fool as I am, she’s just hiding it better.
When they were sitting down, he carefully placed her between himself and Clark. Even though she was acting as if nothing was wrong, Perry knew perfectly well that something was. What exactly remained to be seen, but if he had his way, he’d get it out into the open tonight. Once revealed, it could be dealt with one way or another, but until then, Lois was just going to simmer until she boiled over. If that had to happen, Perry wanted it to occur under semi-controlled conditions and on his watch. Someone would have to do damage control.
While they sipped ice water and waited for the keynote speaker, Perry glanced at Lois and Clark surreptitiously. Try as he might, he couldn’t imagine a reason for her to be as angry as she had been since he got back. Of course, she’s always been a proprietary soul, and Clark was hers from minute one. Her friend, her partner, her puppy-eyed follower. Could she really be this pissed because he ran off on his own? Or is part of it because I hired him back without asking her, and she’s taking that out on him because I don’t give a damn if she’s mad at me?
The keynote address finally began, and the assembled journalists, writers, musicians, and hangers-on paid attention, when they weren’t preening for photographers’ cameras. Perry noticed something terribly amusing; once Lois fixed her eyes on the podium up front, Clark started taking these tiny little glances at her. Nothing horribly obvious, but he was noticing every detail, and his gaze darted her way as if magnetically drawn. Ah, Clark, you poor devil. You’re still carrying a torch for her, aren’t you?
The speech was soon over, and the chairman of the Pulitzer Prize award committee came to the microphone. As he announced each name, the winner had to walk down and receive their plaque, smile for cameras, and say a few words into the mike. Most of them were simply thanks to the boss, the spouse, and sometimes the people who’d caused the story. The foursome from the Planet applauded along with the rest as each name was read out.
“And the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished editorial writing goes to Lois Lane of the Daily Planet, for her article ‘Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,’” the chairman said, and for a moment Lois seemed frozen. Perry worried that he might have to prod her out of her shock, but then she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and rose to accept the award.
It’s a damn shame you’re winning this for that article, Perry thought rather sadly. You deserved it so much more on so many things, but the sheer shock value captured the committee’s interest, I’ll bet, and here you are.
All eyes turned to her when she stood up, but Lois only saw a pair of amazing blue ones looking up at her. The agony in them was a knife through her heart, regardless of the armor she’d painstakingly surrounded her troubled self with. She could not even summon any of the General’s Daughter’s bitter delight in revenge; this just hurt.
She had been the picture of cool confidence since stepping into the elevator back at the Planet; even walking in to the hotel, red carpet and velvet ropes, Lois had looked as though she were on a runway. There’d been no hint of her turmoil then, and now as she walked down to accept the award she still appeared calm and collected.
Lois had managed that feat thanks to drama club back in college. Quite simply, she was acting as if the last six years hadn’t happened. It was the only way she could possibly get through the night. But when she saw the gleaming plaque elegantly engraved with the title of that damned article, the act started to unravel.
The Chairman of the Board shaking her hand, cameras flashing in her eyes, and a microphone thrust in her face; Lois could only mutter an uncharacteristically humble “Thank you,” before fleeing the stage.
As she escaped back to her seat between Clark and Perry, Lois could think of only one thing: God, I need this evening to be over. But since I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon, I need a drink.
The bartender smiled appreciatively at the black-haired beauty who approached him furtively. “What can I do for you, miss?” he asked as suggestively as he dared while on the job.
“Do you have Stoli Vanil?” she whispered, her eyes raking the room.
“I certainly do,” he replied, leaned against the bar. “How do you like it?”
Straight, and without insinuations, she thought, narrowing her eyes for a second. Then she was fluttering her lashes charmingly and asking, “Can I get it on the rocks in a water glass?”
The bartender poured slowly, grinning all the while, and said softly, “Seems like a lot of vodka for a little thing like you.”
Lois gritted her teeth behind a fake smile until the drink was in her hand, then drained half the glass at one swallow. “This little thing can out-drink you anytime, anywhere,” she said sweetly. “And if you’re scared of being drunk around me, I can out-curse, out-shoot, and out-box you too.”
His astonishment was satisfyingly obvious, sweeter than honey, and Lois finished off the vodka. Holding the glass out for another, she added, “But thanks for the ‘miss.’ It’s nice to know I can still rob a cradle anytime I feel like.” The bartender couldn’t even think of a reply, so he poured in wide-eyed silence.
Well, that was delightfully vicious, she thought, sauntering away with a full glass and a snarky smile. Of course, he’s probably only six or seven years younger than I am, but it’s the thought that counts.
By the time she made her way back to Perry, her nerves were thoroughly soothed. “There you are,” the editor said, looking suspiciously at the glass. “What on earth are you drinking, Lane? Smells like ice cream.”
“Flavored water,” Lois said innocently, her eyes wide and so sincere. “The vanilla’s my favorite, but I like the raspberry too.”
Perry seemed willing to accept that, and turned aside to greet an old friend. While they were absorbed, Jimmy asked curiously, “They make it in vanilla now?”
Lois had absolutely no qualms about kicking his ankle. “Hush, Olsen.”
And then Clark was at her elbow, frowning at the drink. “Is that vodka, Lois?”
The look she gave him was hellfire, just as scorching as it had been in the old days. “I am over twenty-one, Kent, and I’m not driving tonight.”
“That’s neat vodka?” Jimmy hissed.
“No, it’s got ice in it,” she whispered back.
“But everything else besides the ice is vodka? Jeez, Lois.”
“Shut up, Jimmy,” she growled, taking a bigger gulp than she should have. Thank God it’s triple-distilled or I’d be coughing it everywhere.
Clark looked as though he was going to add something, then reconsidered. “Drink plenty of actual water so you don’t get a hangover,” he said.
“My God, has Mr. Midwestern Morality actually shown some lenience toward my hedonistic ways?” Lois purred, and then Perry was back among them.
“Why the hell are you all standing around about for?” he asked.
“We don’t play well with others,” Lois said, snickering. No more vodka for you, Lane, the last sober part of her mind mused. And especially no more vodka on an empty stomach, when you haven’t been drinking like this since before the twins.
“Has it occurred to you people that you’re hanging around like the ugly girls at the prom?” Perry chided them. “Get out there and dance!”
Both boys looked slightly horrified, and Lois rolled her eyes, sighing, “I’d rather be a wallflower, Perry, but thanks.”
“Please,” he scoffed. “That dress was made to waltz in, and I’ve never known you to pass up a chance to show off. Get out there and dance, Lane.”
“Who with? One of these two?” She chuckled at him, even though faint alarms were ringing in her mind. Clark would trip over his own feet – I doubt Superman’s had time for dance lessons – and Jimmy … that really would be robbing the cradle. I’d probably give him a complex.
“Lois, get out there and dance,” Perry told her, taking the now-empty glass and passing it off on a waiter. “I insist.”
Oh, dear. “Fine, I’ll dance. C’mon, Chief, show a girl how it’s done.” Lois gave him a genuinely affectionate smile as she offered her hand.
Perry stared at it like it was a cobra. “Lois, there’re photographers running loose here. If my cardiologist saw me dancing with a woman your age, he’d shoot himself.”
“Has he met your wife?” she challenged.
Clark blinked in surprise, and glanced at Jimmy with a raised eyebrow. “He married Loueen,” the younger man whispered.
He actually startled back at that. “She’s a year younger than Lois!”
Jimmy just shrugged.
Meanwhile, Perry was explaining to Lois, “There’s a big difference between you and Loueen.”
“For one, that dress. I can almost see your bra.”
Lois quirked an eyebrow at him challengingly. “What bra?”
“Good God! That was something I didn’t need to know, Lane!”
“Relax, it’s a corset,” she replied, rolling her eyes.
“As if that’s any better,” Perry groused. “Anyway, the main difference is, Loueen’s a good, loving, kind, wonderful woman, and you’re Lois Lane.”
Once again, Perry owed his continued life and health to Russian vodka. Lois merely folded her arms and glared at him as the slow, bluesy music continued to play. “She also used to be your secretary,” Lois said eventually. “Fine, old man. I’ll get you for that little remark later. In the meantime – Jimmy, let’s dance.”
She caught him by surprise, and the redheaded photographer shook his head quickly. “Nuh-uh, I don’t dance to old people music.”
“Old people music?” Lois said in disbelief. “Jimmy, that was Diana Krall! I own that CD!”
The younger man shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. “Like I said. I can’t dance to that.”
Lois was still astounded by his complete lack of appreciation for classic jazz – the hottest, most forbidden music of its time, and miles away from the tame, insipid stuff they called modern jazz. So she couldn’t prevent Perry from catching Clark’s arm and saying, “Go dance with Lane, Kent. I’m sure they still teach dance in Kansas.”
“Um, Perry,” Clark began, looking very uncomfortable indeed.
No. Absolutely, completely not, Lois thought. She’d never understood before that the expression ‘heart in your throat’ could feel so literal. That sleek, unruffled look was gone now, replaced by something akin to a deer in headlights. I can’t get that close to him. No way.
What would it hurt? a persuasive voice murmured to her. Maybe you can finally convince yourself – and him – that you’re over him. Dance with the man, Lois – it’s just a little slow dance. Ella Fitzgerald never hurt anyone.
Perry had literally shoved Clark over to her. “You two at least look decent together,” he said gruffly. “Go, dance. It won’t kill you two to be civilized for another five minutes.”
Then he was standing in front of her, looking as trapped and panicked as she felt. “Um, Lois…”
Courage, Lane. This is only supposed to be Clark, the clueless goof you’ve always known, your best friend; you have to treat him like you always have. “C’mon, Clark,” she said. “Papa won’t shut up until we dance.”
He laughed – he couldn’t help it, it wasn’t his shy little chuckle but that other, richer laugh – and then they were on the dance floor, and Lois was in hell. She’d forgotten how warm his skin was, how very safe she felt in the circle of his arms. And how intensely he affected her in close proximity. Being so near to him filled her with a craven desire to forget herself for an instant and just snuggle up to him, rest her cheek on his broad chest, and wait for him to make everything better. She actually heard herself sigh as the last of her defenses began to dissolve.
It was no easier for Clark. For six years, he’d slept in the spaceship, and his dreams had been haunted by this woman, her body so delicate, looking so fragile, but her mind and will so formidable, stronger even than the steel that bent like putty in his hands. Now, one hand on her waist, holding her hand with the other, only this little distance between them, and he was nearly overwhelmed by the desire to pull her closer, press his lips to her hair and let all the rest of the world fade.
After she’d learned the truth, after she confessed her love, his joy had nearly overwhelmed him. He’d known he loved her from the moment he looked into her eyes on that first flight, but never until she spoke the words did he realize that love was reciprocated. He had almost stuttered that they would really need to talk, too startled to simply say, I love you, too, Lois, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. There was a moment when they simply looked at each other, the paradigm shift so overwhelming, and then he had taken a hesitant step toward her. Lois rose from the chair and came to his arms eagerly, the first kiss fulfillment of all the unspoken truths between them.
Then they had both moved back slightly, about as far apart as they were now, in fact, and they had simply stared at each other, both wondering how such a perfect soul mate could exist and marveling that they had found each other. If he could just kiss her like that now, let the press of his lips speak for all the things his heart couldn’t say…
I can’t. That’s over now; what I want doesn’t matter. Her happiness does.
But oh, God, the last time I held her like this…
“Lois,” Clark whispered, and her name was a prayer.
“Don’t,” she replied almost as soon as he spoke, that pained pleading tone that only he had heard. “Just … don’t.”
“Lois, I’m so sorry I left.” And that was the only thing he could say, the only way he had of trying to lance the anger and hurt between them.
She finally looked up at him, and her gaze was terribly torn, that dark brow furrowed, all of her emotions plain in spite of her resolve. “How could you? How could you just up and… nevermind, I forget how little I seem to have meant to the men in my life. You and Superman both, gone just when I needed you the most.”
“I never had any idea I meant that much to you,” Clark protested. And in truth, he hadn’t; not as Clark, anyway.
“Yeah, ‘cause I tell details of my life to every guy in the office,” she snapped back. “And I ask them to go out with me to dinner after work with my sister and her husband. Sure, that sounds just like me.” Her eyes managed to be both scornful and wounded. “Clark … how could you be so blind?”
He stiffened a little. She couldn’t mean… “Lois … what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that you were my best friend, the only one I could trust completely! I’m saying best friends don’t just disappear! We had to call your mother to find out where you were! I thought you were dead in the West River, for God’s sake!”
Watching from the sidelines, Perry smiled with self-satisfaction. From the looks of things, they were finally talking about whatever it was between them. Good. Get it out of your systems, kids. I want my two best reporters back in action, not scurrying under desks hiding from the sight of each or snarling like wildcats.
They really were a handsome couple; Clark was an oddly graceful dancer, given his klutziness around the office. It seemed like the more he concentrated on Lois, the more fluidly he moved. She’s a good influence on you, Perry thought with a grin, and glanced at Jimmy, watching them with a wistful look.
“You were always so hung up on Superman, I didn’t think you’d notice I was gone.”
Her eyes narrowed coldly as Ella Fitzgerald crooned, “Heart and soul, I begged to be adored; lost control, and tumbled overboard.” Lois had to bite her lip to keep from saying sarcastically, You didn’t seem to mind ‘overhearing’ how much I cared about you then. “Clark, I had a crush on him. Maybe a little more than a crush,” she said through clenched teeth. “And yeah, I was furious when he left. But I was much angrier at you. Clark, I cared about you, you should’ve known that. I’ve told you secrets that I’ve never shared with another soul. And you up and left without a word. How do you think it felt to have both of you abandon me at the same time?”
Clark winced, accidentally pulled her closer when he did. The pain in his voice was all too clear as he said, “I’m sorry. I can’t undo the past six years. I made the worst mistake of my life when I left.” His blue eyes were so troubled behind the magnified lenses of those stupid glasses that she couldn’t doubt his sincerity. “Lois… I don’t know what to say.”
The words echoed through time, back to that morning after their world fell down, and both of them flinched as they realized it. Lois’ eyes were suddenly as wide with imminent tears as they had been in her office all those years ago, and Clark’s expression was as lost in regret.
“But now I see, what one embrace can do. Look at me, it’s got me loving you … madly. That little kiss you stole, held all my heart and soul…” The singer’s voice was husky and soulful, full of love and tinged with pain. Lois’ world had turned upside down; her righteous anger had bled away during the dance, and she was no longer immune to his presence, to the overwhelming unconscious magnetism between them. Just say you love me, a small lost part of her heart cried in response. All of those stifled emotions, locked away and jealously guarded, were seeping out like a loosed tidal wave. She was being drawn to him the same way she always had been.
Lois fought it, looking down away from him with every ounce of her self restraint. She knew what would come next, what had to happen next. Knew those lips, the feel of them on hers, the feeling of that soft hair curled around her fingers as her world narrowed to just that moment and she forgot everything else… The Romantic in her mind rose up, all compelling murmurs and sweet persuasion. Just say it, say those words and kiss him, everything will be all right. Kiss him, let those five words only you both know tell him the truth, you know it will heal your heart if you do, kiss him…
Lost, so very lost in nostalgia, regret, and the love she could no longer deny, Lois lifted her head, her searching eyes meeting his for only an instant before slowly lowering. Unable to bear the ache in her chest, to deny the draw between them any longer, she gave a soft sigh of emotion as she surrendered.
Lois braced her right arm more against his shoulder as she rose on her toes, their lips only a whisper apart…
Oh, how that hurt, to realize just what he had said … to see the pain in her eyes too. Clark bit his lip, feeling like such a fool. Whether she remembers it or not, those words caught her, too. I just do not know how to act around this woman anymore. Why is it she completely ruins me every time?
But when he looked at her again, Lois stole a heated glance and let her eyes slip closed in that hauntingly familiar way. She looked like … it couldn’t be. She couldn’t possibly intend to kiss him.
Why would she… Oh, God, please. She hates me, she’s…
Lois leaned up to him as if she’d done a thousand times, only six years ago. The look in her eyes was lost and full of the love he’d seen in them before.
I shouldn’t do this. She’s engaged to Richard. This is absolutely the last thing I should do…
Helpless as she was, Clark bent his head to kiss her…
Hey! Hey, stupid! If you’re gonna cheat on your fiancé, try doing it someplace with less thana thousand witnesses!
Lois jerked back, horrified. The General’s Daughter had spoken up just in time; she could almost taste his lips, only a breath away. Oh, my God. What the hell did I just do?
Clark was staring at her, looking as confused and uncertain as she felt. Choking back a sob, Lois thought, I can’t do this. I can’t take this anymore. It’s tearing me apart.
Two rare tears fell as she whispered sadly, “I think you should leave … Kal-El.”